During an altercation on May 4, twenty-eight guardsmen opened fire on a crowd, killing four students and wounding nine. Following the killings, the unrest across the country escalated even further. Almost five hundred colleges were shut down or disrupted by protests.Despite the public outcry, the Justice Department initially declined to conduct a grand jury investigation. A report by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest did acknowledge, however, that the action of the guardsmen had been “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” Eventually, a grand jury indicted eight of the guardsmen, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.
In their coverage of the events at Kent State, the media used a photo, taken by a fellow student, of a woman kneeling in anguish, arms upraised, beside one of the slain students. This Pulitzer Prize-winning image soon became a symbol of the social upheaval of the time.
Another, similar incident took place ten days later, on May 14, at Jackson State University, an all-black school in Mississippi. During a student protest, police and state highway patrolmen fired automatic weapons into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding nine others. No warning had been given and no evidence was ever found of student sniping that might have justified the shootings. Nevertheless, unlike the Kent State episode, this incident evoked little national attention, embittering many blacks who felt that the killing of black students was not taken as seriously as that of whites.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.